CONVENT — Two out-of-state contractors who died Tuesday when a tornado packing winds up to 140 mph smashed into the Sugar Hill RV Park were co-workers who bunked together in the same travel trailer, a family member said Thursday.
Lisa Chapman Sims, of North Carolina, the niece of Scott Ellis, 51, of Brevard, North Carolina, said the widow of the other man who was killed, David Swann, 59, of Satsuma, Alabama, started asking authorities about her husband’s roommate, helping lead to Ellis’ identification Wednesday night.
“His wife, Mary, was the one who asked about Scottie,” Sims said of David Swann’s widow.
The tornado thrashed the Sugar Hill park, trapping people in rubble and sending authorities on a search through lists of tenants and vehicle license information and using cadaver dogs to find those thought missing.
Ellis and Swann were among many of the contractors who lived in RVs and travel trailers for months to years on end in the Sugar Hill park while they worked on expansions and other temporary jobs for chemical and other industrial facilities along the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans.
St. James Parish Sheriff Willy Martin Jr. said that with Ellis’ identification, the people known to be missing so far have been accounted for.
Martin said the parish coroner, Dr. Randall Poché, told him family members of the victims noted the men were roommates, but Martin could not say if the men were together in the trailer when the tornado struck Tuesday afternoon.
Their bodies were found in separate locations, the sheriff said.
Ellis, a pipe welder, was publicly identified by Poché on Thursday. Ellis’ family learned of his death Wednesday night.
“My parents are driving down there now to try to find something of his personal belongings,” Sims said Thursday.
The National Weather Service office in Slidell announced Thursday the tornadoes that smashed Paincourtville in Assumption Parish and Convent were actually one and the same, and that twister was a bit stronger than first believed.
The tornado ran 21 miles across two parishes and created a path of damage between 300 to 350 yards wide.
In Assumption Parish, the same tornado threw down one of the water towers in Paincourtville. The parish Police Jury lifted a boil water advisory early Thursday afternoon.
Previously ranked as an EF-2, with maximum winds of 111 to 135 mph, the storm is now rated at the lower end of an EF-3 range, with maximum winds of 140 mph, the Weather Service said.
By Thursday evening, the Weather Service confirmed at least 12 tornadoes in Louisiana, including 11 in the southeast part of the state.
Two days after the powerful EF-3 tornado ripped through Convent, upending trees, smashing portable travel trailers in the Sugar Hill park and flinging around tin roofs and insulation, the deep roots of this rural pocket of St. James that have bound this area together for years showed themselves still rock-solid.
The women of Pleasant Hill Baptist Church of Romeville and some of their friends and relatives — some of whom suffered home damage in Tuesday’s tornado — walked Water Tower Street on Thursday afternoon, distributing plates of home-made red beans and rice, fried chicken and cake, as well as cold drinks.
One street away, while an insurance adjuster inspected the damage to St. James Parish Councilman Ralph Patin Jr.’s house, Patin manned an outdoor table covered with helpings of home-cooked eggplant-crawfish casserole and baked macaroni-and-cheese that a local employee of the nearby Nucor plant donated to him and his neighbors on devastated Schexnaydre Street.
Meanwhile, sons of the Chauvin and Gaudet families who grew up together on Schexnaydre showed up from Texas to help clean their parents’ damaged homes amid chain saws buzzing, backhoes moving limbs and wreckage to the curb, and electrical crews replacing snapped power poles.
“Everybody was affected, so we’re just trying to help out as much as we could,” said Rhonda Moore, 46, who was among those passing out food Thursday on Water Tower, though she is living in a hotel due to damage to her own home.
“It’s a community thing. It’s one love,” added Ebony Jones, 33, also of Convent.
While recovery continued across southeast Louisiana on Thursday as La. 18 and La. 44 in St. James reopened and Entergy announced power should be fully restored by Friday, parish and state officials waited to see if their areas would be eligible for aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Some, like St. James Parish President Timmy Roussel and town of Livingston Mayor Derral Jones, have aired early doubts that the tornadoes, though leaving eye-popping scenes of destruction and killing two people caused enough damage to cross key thresholds.
“Don’t wait for FEMA to write you a check. It ain’t gonna happen,” Jones said in an interview before a town hall meeting for his constituents Thursday night on the recovery process.
“If you don’t have insurance, God help you.”
Later, at the meeting, several dozen Livingston residents filled out forms describing the damage to their property and were quiet when given the floor to ask questions. “I want to tell you how happy I was to see neighbors helping neighbors, not waiting for the government to ‘rescue’ them,” said Jones, his voice cracking as he expressed his pride in the town.
One man did ask for help explaining his absence to an employer out of parish, and Mark Harrell said his office would back him up.
Harrell, head of Livingston Parish’s emergency management office, said the governor and the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness are doing “everything they can” to court FEMA, including looking at grouping multiple parishes to apply for federal aid together.
Mike Steele, spokesman for homeland security office, said the process of surveying the damage across multiple parishes in southeast Louisiana will take several days. He said he wasn’t able to give a precise number at this point.
“Our damage assessment teams started going out yesterday,” Steele said Thursday afternoon.
Under rules posted on the homeland security office’s website, the parish and the state need to a meet damage thresholds to open up access to the various kinds FEMA assistance.
But access to FEMA individual assistance, which offers direct financial aid to people for temporary housing and home and property repairs or replacement, requires a presidentially declared disaster.
For that declaration, the state would need nearly $6.4 million in damage.
Thursday afternoon on Water Tower Street, Michael Davis, 54, stood outside with his wife, one of his daughters and two of his grandchildren as his wife sat under a pop-up tent and sorted through salvageable belongings from their destroyed trailer.
Davis, who was running a generator to power a TV and a stereo blaring ’80s R&B for all the neighborhood to hear, said his insurance adjuster already declared his home a total loss but feels FEMA should be on hand to help.
“This is a disaster area, so they need to show with help,” said Davis, a plant operator living with his daughter in Gonzales.
“You get FEMA down here. ’Cause like I said, ‘We need it. We need it.’ ”
Still, whatever FEMA does won’t bring back the men who were lost and what they meant to their families back home.
“He was fun-loving, outgoing and he loved cars and the outdoors,” Sims said of her uncle, Scott Ellis, choking back tears.
Sims said Ellis, and his former wife, Robin, who was “his only love,” had divorced not long ago. They had raised a son and a daughter together, she said.
Meanwhile, a neighbor of David Swann’s in Alabama said he was someone who helped others, the kind of person who would have a role to play right now in Convent.
The neighbor, Dillon Swann, shares the same last name — he said his father, Robert Swann, and David Swann were distant relatives.
“He was a great guy, very helpful. He loved to help out his neighbors and provide for his family,” Dillon Swann said.
David Swann and his wife, Mary, had a son together, Dillon said.
Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.